Wednesday, February 5, 2020

On to New Hampshire

As the dust settles from the media disappointment at the lack of immediately reportable results from the Iowa Caucus, it is time to consider the Iowa votes themselves and what they may say about the emerging shape of the Democratic race as it moves on to New Hampshire and beyond. Long before the Iowa Caucuses acquired the importance they have had since Jimmy Carter's time, the New Hampshire primary was the "first in the nation" event. (It was in New Hampshire in 1968 that Eugene McCarthy famously did well enough - without winning - to motivate Robert Kennedy to run and Lyndon Johnson to quit.)

So far, with some 71% of precincts reporting, Pete Buttigieg leads with 419 State Delegate Equivalents (26.8%) to Bernie Sanders' 394 (25.2%) and leads in 60 counties to Sanders' 18. In terms of individual votes, Sanders did beat Buttigieg in the first round, 31,428 (24.4%) to 27,515 (21.4%), but that lead narrowed significantly in the second round, 32,772 (26.2%) to 31,458 (25.2%). There may be more movement as the remaining returns are reported, but the pattern appears clear.

Sanders was expected to do well, and (as expected) younger voters tended to go for Sanders. If Sanders becomes the frontrunner after New Hampshire, the Democrats risk repeating what the Republicans experienced in 2016 when a supposedly implausible and unelectable candidate and his zealous base took over a divided party. The question then would be whether the desire to win would motivate mainstream Democrats to unite behind such an extreme candidate (as the Republicans successfully did in 2016).

On the other hand, Pete Buttigieg seems to have done better than expected among younger voters and, most importantly, did very well in the second round. As Michael Sean Winters wrote in The National Catholic Reporter, one "cannot think of a better test of a candidate's ability to unite the Democratic Party than to outpace other leaders in the ability to attract voters who originally supported someone else." If Mayor Pete can do that, then he could well be the candidate best positioned to unite the party - and thus well positioned to win in November. 

Of course, that assumes that Biden's poor showing in Iowa finally slows down his momentum as the presumed frontrunner, and that Buttigieg can follow up his impressive performance in Iowa with successful appeals to more diverse electorates - notably the upcoming primaries in Nevada and South Carolina.

The Senator from Maine and the Senator from Massachusetts may enjoy "favorite son" (and daughter) advantages in New Hampshire, which may complicate matters somewhat. Still, if Buttigieg performs well and Biden less so, that will be telling us something.

One thing this all seems to be suggesting is that, while not all Democrats are yet on board with Sanders' somewhat more extreme sounding agenda, many of them do want a change from the Old Guard's politics as usual. Whatever Iowa was, it was not a vote for Biden's fantasy of a post-Trump return to normalcy.

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